An Irish Language Feature, by Dymphna Lonergan
In March of this year I gave the inaugural Global Irish Studies lecture for the Department of Folklore and Celtic Studies at University College Dublin. I was naturally delighted and flattered to have been invited to do so by the Department Head Dr Regina Uí Chollatáin, but I was also pleased to be able to publicly thank the Irish government for gifting me my linguistic heritage. Like others of my generation, I learned to read and write the Irish language at the same time that I learned to read and write English. What’s more, we were taught to write Irish using the Gaelic script and all our books were printed in that form.
I was asked to talk about my research into the Irish language in Australia, but also to say something about my emigrant experience that would be of interest to the expected community audience. This was no problem because my personal experiences and academic pursuits have been fite fuaite, intertwined, throughout my life. From a very young child I was alert to language, especially to difference. An early memory is of my mother laughing with my sisters and clearly talking about me. My ears pricked up at the word ciotóg. Apparently I was this. It was some years later before I understood this to be Irish for ‘left-handed’.
I loved languages in school. I loved the mystery in deciphering meaning: the Latin story about the ship Scylla was doubly interesting because Cilla Black was a popular singer at the time; the Beatles sang Michele, ma belle, and we understood. Our primary school Irish syllabus was packed full of poetry, song, and drama. I recall a little drama we acted out in which I had a line with the phrase ag stealladh báistí in it. It means ‘raining heavily’, ‘pouring down’, ‘lashing’. I marvelled that the Irish sound suited the meaning so well. In secondary school there was the struggle with the tuiseal ginideach and the modh coinniolach, genitive and conditional cases, but this was offset by the delightful book Peig that was replete with wise sayings. Seanfhocail such as aitníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile, ‘one beetle recognises another’ (yes, those Beatles again!) are used in Irish English too. While on a long walk one day with my sister we were telling each other stories to pass the time, and I came out with the proveb gioraíonn beirt bóthar, ‘two shorten the road’, to her delight.
I remember the day I picked up Peig again in Australia and my astonishment and subsequent sadness that I could no longer read it. In a few years I had lost this language. I vowed to go back to Irish and to never again lose it. Whenever later in my research I came across glib remarks about how the Irish happily gave away their native language for English, I remember my pain and sorrow. Irish was a second language for me. How much more emotional would it be for a native speaker of Irish to no longer use it or hear it.
Many years later I came across a newspaper account of a man from Kapunda in South Australia remembering his Irish mother who would sit chatting and smoking her ‘dudeen’ (Ir. dúidín) whenever an Irish-speaking visitor came. Of course she did. The ebullient Irish speakers in Australia also used their term for ‘excellent’, ar fheabhas, which became Aust. ‘grouse’. Bog isteach became Aust. ‘bog in’. The itinerant labourer the tireálaí became the ‘shiralee’ – a word most Australians will tell you means a rolled up bundle of blankets or clothing typically carried by these men.
Looking for the Irish language in Australian English has been my delight over the past fifteen years, not only as an academic pursuit, but also as a way of remaining connected to my Irish identity. Former Irish President Mary McAleese’s words on how learning Irish enhanced her Irish identity resonate with me: ‘The skin of identity became more comfortable, a better fit, …a sense of a circle completed, a wound healed.’ (Irish Times 15/01/2016).
Most of our capital cities in Australia have year-long Irish language classes.You can also immerse yourself in Irish at the daonscoileanna, folkschools, in Melbourne and in Sydney, whether you are a beginner or a native speaker. Bain triail as! Have a go!
Dymphna Lonergan, Flinders University